Simple: he took a beating and got his friends to film it. The process taught him that failing in front of friends can deliver perfection and also redefine what’s possible…
Summer in Blair Atholl, Scotland. Shards of sunlight pierce the line of trees, illuminating purple foxgloves on an overgrown bank. A young bulldog bounds through the undergrowth, snapping at lazily buzzing flies. So far, so bucolic… until the peace is shattered by a jarring mechanical clatter and the crunch of tyres ripping down a trail. The bike spits dirt up the side of the bank, but rather than it popping off the lip, the rider’s legs buckle, sending his body under the bike and rotating it so he’s upside down and traveling sideways with the top of his helmet about 2 feet off the deck.
Free-wheeling hubs buzz and whine like bullets ricocheting off tin plates as the rider begins to corkscrew out of the barrel roll. He’s coming up short, though, running out of time to fully rotate and land on his wheels. There’s an agonizing moment when you think he might drag it back into shape, but the momentum simply isn’t there and he crashes, back-first, onto some thoughtfully placed mats, although when he pops up again the clods of dirt hanging from his jersey and backpack testify to the fact that he has definitely decked out. “Raspberries!” howls Danny MacAskill with surprising politeness for a man who has failed to land a trick he’s been pushing for all day.
As the world’s most famous street trials rider, MacAskill has racked up tens of millions of views of his stunning trials and MTB films, regularly breaking the internet with each new release, ever since his April 2009 video for Inspired Bicycles went viral. Slick, lusciously orchestrated and apparently seamless,the Scot’s movies are small works of art, showcasing his jaw-dropping skills.
Today, though, is far from seamless. Today, MacAskill is just a guy who can’t dial a trick for the cameras. A guy who’s hauling himself up from mats placed in the landing area to test the trick. A guy scrubbing mud and dirt from his pants and resisting the urge to swear violently. A guy about to hit the reset button for the umpteenth time as he works through hour after gruelling hour shooting his latest film Wee Day Out. It’s no surprise, though, because the trick MacAskill is attempting is a ‘scrub barrel roll’, which has never been landed before on a mountain bike.
“He did one into a foam pit to learn the movement, but that was three weeks ago now,” explains set-builder and jump-crafter Nash Masson. But smacking his back off the ground isn’t even the danger for MacAskill: “It’s that his bike hits and spits him off the highside, catapulting him off into the bushes.”
Everyone seems surprisingly relaxed about this possibility – except MacAskill. “It’s so blind,” he says. “The landing is nowhere to be seen from the top of the run-in; all I can see are rhododendrons!” He’s grinning, but also nervously stamping down the dirt on the take-off. Masson offers to spot MacAskill as he preps for another attempt. “Not a bad idea – you can put me in the recovery position,” MacAskill replies drily. It’s an offhand remark, but the risks are real enough – he has spent a lot of time off the bike while recovering from injuries including three broken collarbones, two broken feet, a meniscus tear, and a torn disc in his back, which required surgery.
“For a few years after the operation, my body was quite weak,” says MacAskill, “so the idea of doing a front flip off a drop or over a sign onto hard ground… well, there’s the feeling that if I land arse-first, is my back going to hold?” He blasts past again. It’s almost too fast to follow, but very smooth. The mats are dragged away and he wheels his bike back to the top of the steep run-in – a track interrupted by a dry stone wall that he has to ‘American bunny hop’ over.
MacAskill’s on his pedals, holding a track stand. He takes three long, deep breaths and the atmosphere suddenly becomes brittle.
“OK… 3, 2, 1, I’m coming in!” This time, there’s no hesitation. He hits the take-off and executes a perfect scrub barrel roll, outrageously close to the top of the bank. It has the whole crew whooping. “Dialed it!” shouts Masson, “straight down the middle of the landing – that was so low!”
Suddenly it’s all smiles and high fives as the tension dissipates. MacAskill has a slightly disbelieving look on his face, the opposite of chest-beating bravado. As his eyes flashed past mid-roll, it looked like he’d spotted the landing, but apparently not. “I can’t see anything from the take-off to the landing; the first I know is when I’m rolling down the slope. I feel amazing.”
The sense of achievement comes not only from being the first to nail the trick; it’s also reward for a gruelling schedule during which, over several months, he will run through moves hundreds of times before the right trick in the right shot is delivered. On the road to eye-popping fluidity, there are a lot of missed chances, numerous retakes and often a lot of pain.
The film’s log-slide sequence is a case in point: MacAskill spent several days taking a hellacious beating at the hands of his own creativity. He’s not known for BMX-style grinds, but when the crew found a rotten, algae-covered log in the forest, MacAskill thought people would be able to relate to him jumping onto it, sliding along the top on his crank and tyres, then jumping off with a 5½ft drop.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” says MacAskill. “Hang on, let me show you my gear.” He pulls some red shorts from his bag that look like they have been painted with asphalt. They’re beyond filthy. “The log was a bit too rotten. My bashguard and chain ring were digging in, so it gradually deteriorated and caught a bit more each time. I was having a total shit-show.”
So it took a few goes? “Try hundreds – hundreds of takes over three days. In the end, we resorted to buying a few tubs of Vaseline, because we had rubbed off all the algae after 100 takes or so.“It was a fairly soft landing, but I still put myself through the mill. I tweaked the ligaments in my shoulders that hold down the collarbones. I probably had 40 big crashes onto my face, back and shoulders.”
There was never any hint of admitting defeat, however, and MacAskill admits that completing the sequences often comes down to indefatigable obstinacy.
“Every so often, you get a little sniff and you know that it’s going to go well. You can feel it. You just have to be stubborn. Sometimes, some of the lines put you through the mill so hard that you’re not even happy that you landed it. You’re past that point; you’re just relieved. You might not be able to ride for a few days afterwards, because you’re bruised, battered and aching. But it’s working towards a bigger goal. You call out tricks and basically go at it until you land it. Also, I’m often picking things that are on the edge of my ability!”
Pushing his own boundaries is key for MacAskill; just as important is creating a narrative, going beyond what he calls “an action sports film where it is all rad, slow-motion 4K crops”. “It’s trying to create something with more of a real feel,” he says. “Compared with a lot of sports, like freeride MTB, what I’m doing is low-end. I’m not going for the hardest or biggest, but something a bit different; tricks that really tie your concept and your riding together.”
Helping MacAskill realize this vision are a dedicated, close-knit crew of friends who not only translate his ideas to film but push him to his performance limits. Watching them at work is like being with a group of good friends building ramshackle obstacles in the woods and then daring their most impulsive rider to hit it.
“You’re not carving enough, you’re just flipping now,” Masson laments. “It’s scary, though,” replies MacAskill. “Stop your whining,” Masson fires back with a grin. Set builder John Bailey is more diplomatic. “You haven’t done it enough,” he says. “Just lap it and play with it.” Clearly, if the crew weren’t such close mates, and therefore able to absorb setbacks and frustrations, this approach to filming might end in tears. “If I was working with a fresh team, I’d be embarrassed about how I’m stomping about in the mud, throwing a strop,” says MacAskill. Being at ease allows him the confidence to repeatedly and spectacularly fail while striving for that goal.
Still, his friends’ laughter alone can’t be what drives him back onto his bike for another go when the light and his body are failing; part of that must come from the shared vision for the film they’re all creating. MacAskill is in a position where pretty much any set and trick combo he dreams up can be attempted, including riding on a hay bale rolling downhill. “I’m lucky to have friends who share my motivation and can document it in a way that fits with the image in my head,” he says. “I’ve gone into each clip focused on upping the level or taking it into different places, and we’ve probably done 90 per cent of the stuff we’ve tried.”
Getting to the 90 percent mark on this film is a marathon rather than a sprint, but MacAskill is intent that the finished product yet again sets the standard. “We’re pushing hard,” he says. “Pretty much everything I’m picking is unusual in some way or another, maybe in mountain biking or trials – or stuff that has never been done on any bike. “It’s determination.
I don’t necessarily have the skills to do it, but it’s like rolling 10 sixes in a row: it might take you 10 hours, but it’ll happen eventually. You do go into dark little holes. The frustration, anger, weakness… you just have to think this is all working towards your end goal and it’ll be totally worth it.”
Having the confidence to fail publicly while pursuing a dream, and trusting friends’ help to get you there, is something we could all benefit from, whether you’re striving to master a new sport or a recipe for chocolate soufflé.
The key seems to be: keep it fun. “It’s hard to know what drives me to do this stuff,” he says. “It almost goes back to when you’re eight years old, sat on a bike on top of the bottle bank in your village, and you know you can do it. You just keep going until you land it. It’s like a game.”
Perhaps the essence of MacAskill’s riding also explains his broad appeal – even to people who are as likely to ride a bike as do a handstand on the Moon. He has stayed in touch with that eight-year-old, messing with his friends’ heads as he psyches himself up to huck a bike off a bottle bank. It’s something absolutely simple, but increasingly rare, in a world where overachieving as an adult is usually so serious.